Thursday, September 3, 2009

Friends of the Family

Beth stopped short in the doorway of the community center.

The entire expanse of the room was lined with tables. Row upon row of them. A pair of boys were working steadily setting them all up.

Off to one side, where a stage had been set up, a group of girls were working at untangling Christmas lights from twisting garlands of plastic holly. Across the room, through a pair of double-doors that had been propped open, older kids and adults were busy rushing back and forth with pans, trays, and pots, plastic aprons flapping.

“I… I thought we were going to be the only ones showing up,” Beth said, as Jack gently prodded her out of the doorway. “Some of them go to our school, don’t they?”

“Yeah. And more will be showing up. We’re kinda early.”

A large, round, gray-haired woman glanced up from where she was giving directions to another pair of boys. They ran off, and the woman turned, smiling.

“Hannah! Charlotte! It’s so good to see you again!” She spread her arms, and folded the two girls into a hug. “Almost didn’t recognize you with your hair its natural color,” the woman said to Charlotte, as she let the girl go.

“Yeah, well… I was running out of colors last spring so…” She ran her fingers through her curly brown hair.

“And Hannah! So tall! Why, I remember when you weren’t much bigger than little Eleanor.”

The woman bent down, nearly enveloping Ellie completely with the hug.

“Getting so big yourself, Eleanor! I love what you’ve done with your hair!”

“I’m almost six, now, Mrs. Clemmons. And it’s called a ‘ranch braid.’ Beth did it! She’s our neighbor, and you remember that thing on the news about the lights? That was—”

“It’s called a ‘French braid,’” Hannah said, covering the girl’s mouth. “And remember what we said about talking about those things?”

The girl nodded, braid bobbing up and down.

“Oh, that certainly was something else. And for it to be so close to your house! Why, that must have been in the woods beside the old Langton place. Did they ever determine what caused it?”

“Gas pocket?” Charlotte wondered.

“Atmospheric disturbance?” guessed Hannah.

“An angel,” Jack said.

“Aliens!” Ellie said, and Beth’s smile at Jack turned into a glower at his sister.

Mrs. Clemmons turned her smile on Jack. “Why, Jack! So quiet I nearly missed you!” She hugged him, and he smiled and hugged her back. Beth stared in disbelief.

“I saw that write up about your artwork in the Daily News. How exciting! Such a gift you’ve been given! That painting was simply amazing.”

Jack blushed, and stared at his feet. “Well… I had a really good subject to paint,” he said, taking a step back and to the side.

“Oh, my word,” the woman breathed, her hands going to her mouth. Her blue eyes widened in recognition. “You’re— Oh, Jack, I thought you’d painted an angel but….”

Beth’s eyes widened as the woman took a step forward, hands outstretched. The girl flinched, then relaxed as the woman simply gripped her hands tightly, giving them a couple firm shakes.

“Welcome,” she said. “It’s always a pleasure to have another Beth around. Though, I’m a ‘Bethany’ and not an ‘Elizabeth.’ Why don’t you just call me ‘Mrs. Clemmons’ like everyone else so we don’t trip over each other? Now, if you’ll come this way….” She didn’t let go of the girl’s hands, and led her away.

“Now, tell me, Beth… What is it you like to do? What special talent do you bring to help us with this feast tonight…?”

Charlotte and Hannah glanced at each other, and then at the two departing figures.

“How long, you think, before we see her again?” Charlotte asked.

“Could be a while,” Hannah said with a shrug. She turned to Jack. “You may as well get busy with chair detail. We’ll be at our usual battle stations if you need us.”

“I’m going to go help with the lights!” Ellie said, and dashed off towards the stage.

Jack watched Beth and Mrs. Clemmons disappear into the kitchen, sighed, and turned to go back down the entry hall, where the long racks of chairs sat in storage.

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